The year is 1977 and in this rural French town there is trouble at the local umbrella factory where the union is complaining about the treatment they receive at the hands of their boss, Mr Pujol (Fabrice Luchini). But his wife Suzanne (Catherine Deneuve) doesn't allow that to bother her, and this morning she returns from her morning jog where she regularly communes with the wildlife to make her husband breakfast, their staff being off to attend a wedding in Portugal. Pujol is not happy about that - but then he's not happy about Suzanne doing anything much.
Deneuve had had dealings with umbrellas before, of course, in the classic musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but where that had been the source of heartbreak, Potiche found her with a far more constructive attitude to a life that could have been relegated to the decorative rather than the useful. A potiche in French is a trophy wife, but while Suzanne had lived up to that point in that empty role, she finds that she can contribute to society in a far more hands-on capacity when she has to step up to taking care of business, literally, improving her family's lot into the bargain.
That business being the one her father left her, and Pujol married her to take over, effectively wedding her fortune rather than being wholly interested, or even in love, with Suzanne in the first place. Director François Ozon, adapting a popular play, had his comedy hat on (presumably a suave trilby or something), though he still employed his trademark soap opera dynamics in the plot, and the balance between sending that up and presenting them with utmost sincerity. Therefore Potiche may have been ostensibly a way to tickle the funny bone, but Ozon also brought his social commentary to bear on a character who embodied, for him, the feminism that brightened the lives of the most unlikely women.
Previous to this, the subject of union disputes was not one which blessed the cinema with its funniest comedies, making the true predecessor of this probably Carry On At Your Convenience, though Potiche was somewhat more sophisticated. Deneuve was in her element, no longer the ice maiden she could often lapse into but an endearing woman in late middle age who finds her taken for granted charms are actually pretty handy for wrapping people around her little finger. Indeed, the only character who fails to fall for her in any great capacity is her rabidly capitalist husband, who is furious when she sorts out the company after he is absent due to a heart attack.
There was another French cinematic icon here, and he was Gérard Depardieu who played the mayor of the town. He and Deneuve had shared the screen before, but rarely so touchingly, as it is revealed Maurice the mayor had enjoyed a brief fling with Suzanne when they were far younger, and he still regards her as the love of his life even though they are at apparent opposite ends of the political spectrum. But the trick the film pulls is that Suzanne finds in her femininity a great reserve of diplomacy, leading her to bloom into a master (or mistress?) negotiator, a message of empowerment and how benefits to the community can be found in the least obvious places, along with a thumbs up to anyone who ever thought they had no purpose then discovered they were not so ineffectual after all. Throw in Catherine and Gérard getting on down at the discotheque and you had a character comedy that was never too heavy, affectionate and generous even if the laughs were more of the wry smile than the uproarious variety. Music by Philippe Rombi.